Growing pressure on Saudi Arabia to explain haj disaster

Teheran expresses outrage at deaths, as Iranian pilgrims criticise Saudi rescue efforts

A man in Ahmedabad, India, weeping after receiving news that his family members died in Thursday's stampede in Mina, a few kilometres east of Mecca. The disaster occurred after two big groups of pilgrims collided.
A man in Ahmedabad, India, weeping after receiving news that his family members died in Thursday's stampede in Mina, a few kilometres east of Mecca. The disaster occurred after two big groups of pilgrims collided.PHOTO: REUTERS

MINA (Saudi Arabia) • Saudi Arabia has come under growing pressure to account for a crush that killed more than 700 people during the haj pilgrimage.

With photographs of piles of the dead circulating on social media and pilgrims frantically searching for missing compatriots, the effort to uncover the facts and assign blame was likely to grow more acute and possibly more political.

Saudi King Salman ordered a review of haj plans after the disaster, in which two big groups of pilgrims collided at a crossroads in Mina, a few kilometres east of Mecca, on their way to performing the "stoning of the devil" ritual at Jamarat.

But the kingdom's regional rival, Iran, expressed outrage at the deaths of 131 of its nationals at the world's largest annual gathering of people, and politicians in Teheran suggested that Riyadh was incapable of managing the event.

"Death to the Saudi dynasty," hundreds of demonstrators chanted in the Iranian capital of Teheran at a protest, according to a live Iranian state television broadcast.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly, echoed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in blaming Saudi Arabia for the incident.

"I ask the Saudi Arabian government to take the responsibility of this catastrophe and fulfil its legal and Islamic duties in this regard," he said in a statement.

Iranian pilgrims described the Saudi response as "too little, too late", according to Iran's state-run Press TV. They said rescuers arrived at the scene two hours after the incident and started collecting dead bodies first instead of helping the injured.

Former Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, an ally of Iran and foe of Riyadh, joined in the criticism. He said the incident was "proof of the incompetence of the organisers of the pilgrimage season". He also said the haj should be placed under the authority of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

But Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Turki was quoted in the Saudi media yesterday as saying that the security forces had responded immediately and began to rescue those who fell in the crush.

In a statement posted on his ministry's website, Saudi Health Minister Khalid al-Falih said an investigation would be conducted rapidly and a final toll of the dead and wounded calculated. At least 863 pilgrims were injured.

"The investigations into the incident of the stampede that took place today in Mina, which was perhaps because some pilgrims moved without following instructions by the relevant authorities, will be fast and will be announced, as has happened in other incidents," the statement said.

His comments were likely to be seen by the kingdom's critics as an attempt to deflect responsibility for the incident: Safety during the haj is politically sensitive for the Al Saud dynasty, since the ruling family presents itself internationally as the guardian of orthodox Islam and custodian of its holiest places in Mecca and Medina.

Meanwhile, there were reactions from other world leaders. Speaking in New York, Pope Francis expressed "sentiments of closeness" with the world's Muslims after the tragedy. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and the United States also offered condolences.

Singapore President Tony Tan Keng Yam wrote to Saudi King Salman to convey his condolences.

In a statement released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he said: "On behalf of the people of Singapore, I extend our heartfelt condolences to Your Majesty and the people of Saudi Arabia. Our thoughts are with the families of the victims. We hope that those who are injured will have a quick and full recovery."

There were no Singaporean victims in the incident, the MFA said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2015, with the headline 'Growing pressure on Saudi Arabia to explain haj disaster'. Print Edition | Subscribe